La Conciergerie, from royal palace to revolutionary prison

I first thought of the view of the Conciergerie as a background for my website and posted it with this idea. It fits my first novel, since the heroine of Mistress of the Revolution is jailed there, and the second one, since Roch Miquel, my protagonist in For the King works at the Préfecture de Police, then located at the back of the building (towards the center of picture, to the right of the single round tower).

It is an iconic view of Paris, and it conveys the urban feeling I am seeking. It had changed very little between the Revolution and the time of the painting (1858) and amazingly enough, since then. Only the ramshackle Préfecture has been demolished to make way for a more stately building. Look at this modern view:

Conciergerie panoramic view

Conciergerie panoramic view

The medieval origin of the building is obvious from the architecture of the towers. Indeed in the Middle Ages, this was the royal palace, the Palais de la Cité, after the island of the same name in the middle of the Seine River. It was home to King Louis IX, later Saint-Louis, who had the jewel-like Sainte-Chapelle built within its grounds.

Conciergerie interior

Conciergerie interior view

It was also the seat of his grandson King Philippe IV le Bel, who put an end to the worldly (but not literary) existence of the Friar Templars. We owe Philippe the magnificent Salle des Gens d’Armes (Hall of the Men in Arms), one of the most impressive examples of lay Gothic architecture still in existence (left.)

But in the course of the 14th century, French Kings abandoned the Palace of the Cité, which, though no longer a royal residence, retained administrative functions, such as the Treasury. It became the seat of the Parliament of Paris, the highest court of justice in and around Paris until the Revolution.

The Parliament was abolished in short order, and the Revolutionary Tribunal settled in its former courtrooms. Thus it was convenient to transfer prisoners whose trial before the Tribunal was imminent to La Conciergerie beneath.

Men and women were housed separately, and those who could afford it were offered individual cells with modest furniture and the option of ordering catered meals. The rest of the prisoners made do with the dismal prison fare and the pailleux (collective cells with straw on the floor). In particular the Hall of the Men in Arms became a huge cage holding over a hundred male prisoners.

Conciergerie Women Court

Conciergerie Women’s Court

Women were housed around a yard with a fountain (visible on this picture to the right, behind the gates) where they could do a bit of toilette and wash any spare clothes. The women’s cells were left open during the day, allowing them the use of the yard, and communication through a gated corridor with the men’s quarters. All people could do was hold hands through the bars, but, as I note in Mistress, romances were brisk in this grim setting.

Marie-Antoinette herself spent the last months of her life at La Conciergerie. She was isolated from the other inmates, but the most amazing thing is that an escape attempt almost succeeded, and she was caught only after she had already left the prison, and was walking out of the courthouse. Security procedures were then severely tightened and she was kept to a cell with a high window opening onto the floor of the Women’s Yard, under constant surveillance.

Likewise all the revolutionary leaders who ended on the guillotine transited through La Conciergerie: Danton, Desmoulins, Hébert, Chaumette, Robespierre, Couthon, Saint-Just, Coffinhal and other Jacobins.

Today La Conciergerie is open to the public. The Hall of the Men in Arms has lost nothing of its medieval splendor, the Women’s Yard has barely changed since the French Revolution, and one can still follow the steps of the prisoners on their way to the guillotine. We don’t know which cells precisely housed Marie-Antoinette, but a memorial chapel was built during the Restoration.

The rest of the former royal palace is now the Palais de Justice, the main courthouse of Paris, housing the Superior Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. One can (I should say must) also visit, through a different entrance, Louis IX’s Sainte-Chapelle. A place where history comes to life…

Conciergerie Dauzats

Conciergerie by Dauzats

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13 Comments to “La Conciergerie, from royal palace to revolutionary prison”

  1. kez says:

    In 1997 I visited the the building with my partner at the time. I must have only been inside the prison area for 10 minutes when I became faint and short of breath. I sat down hoping it would pass but my breathing became more labored. My partner took me into the courtyard and sat me on the fountain area at which point I collapsed and he had to carry me in his arms. I remember being insistent that he got me out of the building and as we reached the entrance I jumped from his ams and ran screaming and to this day I have no idea what came over me. Since the experience I have anxiety attacks when ever I travel or in situation where I feel trapped. Nearly 15 years on I am still living the effects of that one visit.

  2. Penny Klein says:

    Thank You again. NYC has not saved much of its historical buildings. But I decided I liked the concierge picture over the river to be something to put in my apt. what do you think, at the entrance hallway wall? How’s that for a welcome?
    merci beaucoup

  3. Holly says:

    Fabulous post, as always, Catherine. I love to stand on the Pont des Arts et Metiers right as the sun sets and look out at the turrets of the Conciergerie. My imagination always runs wild!


  4. Penny says:

    YES! I can see everything clearly. As I have said I fixed the issue that made it impossible to see text. Is this also where Josephine and her husband landed after the revolution began? And is this the place mentioned in the Mossiker book on the necklace?
    wow, I love your new redesign.

  5. Catherine Delors says:

    Well, it is thanks to your help that the blog has come to this point! I am very happy with the Conciergerie as a header.

  6. It looks beautiful, Catherine! I love the shade of blue!

  7. Elizabeth says:

    I love the way the new website looks and I can’t wait to get my hands on your new novel! I’m trying to pull together a trip for my mother and I to take to France and I get many great ideas from your blog.

  8. Felio Vasa says:

    Catherine what a great article. The painting, sketch & photos are fabulous too. I always visit the Conciergerie & the Prefecture de Police when in Paris. Both offer so much to the history of Paris & the Revolution. And of course St. Chapelle should never be missed too.

  9. Kirsten35 says:

    Thanks a lot that you completed the professional information related to this good topic. But, to select the best writing services, we have to know important facts just about custom research paper.

  10. lucy says:

    I love it! Your new look is just perfect!

  11. I visited La Conciergerie when I was in Paris last spring. It’s an eerie place, especially the courtyard where the fountain was used for washing of bodies and clothing. One can easily imagine the desperation and terror of the prisoners.

  12. Elisa says:

    Your blog looks beautiful!
    I went to both La Conciergerie and Sainte-Chappelle while I was on summer study aboard. Impressive places!
    There’s a historical fiction novel titled “The Canterbury Papers” by Judith Koll Healey. The heroine, Princess Alais, sets out from there on a mission to England.

  13. Daphne says:

    What a beautiful building! And your new blog design looks very nice.

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